The Chinese doctors who sounded the alarm over the government cover-up of the coronavirus disease outbreak are heroes of democracy like those of a century ago, the White House deputy national security adviser said Monday.
Matthew Pottinger, speaking in Chinese to a University of Virginia conference, said several doctors including Li Wenliang were persecuted by Chinese authorities for seeking to alert people and embody the spirit of China’s pre-communist May Fourth pro-democracy movement.
“To my mind, the heirs of May Fourth are civic-minded citizens who commit small acts of bravery, and sometimes big acts of bravery,” Mr. Pottinger said, becoming the latest senior administration to issue a sharp critique of Beijing’s handling of the deadly global coronavirus outbreak. “Dr. Li Wenliang was such a person.”
The physician “wasn’t a demagogue in search of a new ideology that might save China. He was an ophthalmologist and a young father who committed a small act of bravery and then a big act of bravery.”
The unusual Chinese-language address by a senior White House official was to be broadcast into China as part of the Trump administration’s escalating war of words with Beijing over the coronavirus.
President Trump and aides such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and trade adviser Peter Navarro have adopted an increasingly critical line on China’s handling of the virus. Top government voices in Australia, Britain and other countries are starting to echo the American criticisms.
The Reuters news agency reported Monday that an internal Chinese think tank report prepared for the Ministry of State Security last month warned that Beijing may be facing a global anti-China backlash on the order of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 because of COVID-19.
In China, state-controlled press organs in recent weeks have stepped up their own attacks on U.S. officials, especially Mr. Pompeo, for publicly chastising China over its mishandling and covering up the disease outbreak. They accuse Washington of trying to scapegoat China and divert attention from the U.S. government’s own record in dealing with the crisis.
Mr. Pottinger said after his speech the United State is not seeking to punish Chinese for the coronavirus, but wants a reciprocal and fair relationship. The decades-long policy of ignoring nefarious Chinese actions has not produced a more moderate Communist China, he said.
China instead is moving in a more dictatorial direction, in both politics and economics, he said.
He focused in his remarks on the case of Dr. Li, who in late December passed along a warning through the social media outlet WeChat to several former medical school classmates about a new and dangerous virus causing pneumonia-like symptoms among patients turning up at Wuhan hospitals.
He urged his friends to take steps to protect their families and co-workers.
Instead of being praised, however, the doctor was admonished by police for spreading “rumors” and forced to sign a false confession. He also was threatened with prosecution under China’s strict information control regulations.
“Anyone tempted to believe this was just a case of overzealous local police, take note: China’s central government aired a news story about Dr. Li’s ‘rumor-mongering,’” Mr. Pottinger said.
Undeterred, Dr. Li then went public about the effort to silence him and in doing so alerted the entire world to what would eventually become a global pandemic, Mr. Pottinger said.
“By this time, Dr. Li had contracted the disease he’d warned about. His death on Feb. 7 felt like the loss of a relative for people around the world,” Mr. Pottinger said.
On his death bed, Dr. Li told a reporter that “I think there should be more than one voice in a healthy society, and I don’t approve of using public power for excessive interference.”
Clampdown on journalists
Chinese Communist Party authorities have since tried to divert widespread public support for the doctor by declaring that he was a loyal party member and that unspecified “hostile forces” were using his death to attack the government.
“It takes courage to speak to a reporter — or to work as one — in today’s China,” said Mr. Pottinger, a former news correspondent based in China.
China also has cracked down on news gatherers, both official and unofficial, who tried to provide truthful information on the disease outbreak in Wuhan. Three citizen-journalists, Chen Qiushi, Fang Bin and Li Zehua, have gone missing after reporting on Wuhan, and several U.S. journalists were expelled from China.
A medical colleague of Dr. Li, Ai Fen, also has been silenced after voicing her concerns about the Chinese response to the virus outbreak to a reporters.
Mr. Pottinger said the activists who are bucking Chinese rule are part of a long national tradition of scholars “serving as China’s conscience.”
Millions of Hong Kong citizens and Catholic priests in China are facing repression, he noted.
Mr. Pottinger said the legacy of the pro-democracy May Fourth movement 100 years ago is up to the Chinese people to decide.
The movement’s aspirations today could be stifled by Chinese official censorship and disinformation and its champions slandered as unpatriotic, pro-American and subversive, he said.
“We know the Communist Party will do its best to make it so,” Mr. Pottinger said.
The deputy security adviser said China today would benefit from less nationalism and more populism.
“Democratic populism is less about left vs. right than top vs. bottom,” he said. “It’s about reminding a few that they need the consent of many to govern. When a privileged few grow too remote and self-interested, populism is what pulls them back or pitches them overboard. It has a kinetic energy.”
The White House adviser cited similar populist energy behind the Brexit vote in Britain five years ago and President Trump’s election in 2016.
“It is an admonition to the powerful of this country to remember who they’re supposed to work for: America first,” Mr. Pottinger said.
The May 4 movement was motivated by a similar populism and an effort to break an enforced conformity preventing free through.
“Wasn’t the goal to achieve citizen-centric government in China, and not replace one regime-centric model with another one?” he asked. “The world will wait for the Chinese people to furnish the answers.”